The last decade of the twentieth century in America saw a rise in programs for humans self betterment. A popular form of betterment is that of the inner animal. Interest in Native American animal mysticism, vision quests, and totem animals have increased dramatically in the past few years. No forms of media have been spared; Calvin Kleins supermodels come on during sitcom commercials to tell viewers they need to be a beast, or to get in touch with their animal within. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, animalism was viewed not as a method of self-improvement but as the reprehensible side of humanity that lingered beneath the surface, waiting for an opportune time to come out and play. In Frank Norris novel McTeague, humans are no better than the beasts they claim to control. They cage and torment defenseless creatures, but cage and torment themselves far, far, worse. McTeague, Trina, Zerkow, and Marcus are animals in thin humans clothing, walking the forests of McTeague, waiting for the opportunity to shed their skin and tear each other apart, while the real animals of the world continue leading lives far superior to their human counterparts.
McTeague, the title character of the work, is the king of beasts in San Francisco. A charlatan dentist who constantly mumbles and growls when speaking, he makes his living by causing great pain to his fellow human beings. The woman he falls in love with, Trina Sieppe, is a patient in his chair. McTeagues love is spawned from the agony of false orthodontics. Although etherized, Trina experiences the hurt of McTeagues drills.
As he works his macabre work on the beautiful girl, McTeague begins to see her as more and more attractive. The pain is a sexual catalyst for McTeague; like an animal on the hunt, he becomes aroused by the suffering he causes Trina. The instinct to take advantage of the defenseless girl becomes overpowering, and he eventually gives in to his raging, bestial nature and plants a dog-like smooch on her lips. From this love forged in sex, the downfall of McTeague and Trina is cast.
McTeague resembles the beast inside more and more as his marriage progresses. At first, sexually dominating Trina satiates him. Like a drug, however, a greater dosage is needed to sustain McTeagues high. He begins to verbally abuse the girl, refusing her simple affections and pleasures. Then, as his financial life begins to slide downhill, McTeague begins the physical abuse. A slap here, a punch there, until the boxing of ears is a commonplace occurrence. McTeague acts like a grizzly bear keeping its mate from wandering to far. Even this doesnt please his sadistic nature. McTeague begins to drink, and his alcohol-sodden brain allows the beast to take full control. He begins biting Trinas fingers. Although the skin is not usually broken by his chomps, her fingers are bruised to the point where she finds work difficult if not incapacitating. Eventually, McTeague does begin to break her flesh with his teeth, and the paint that she works with poisons her fingers, requiring amputation. Mutilated and finally crushed, Trina leaves McTeague, causing the beast to take full control of the fallen man.
McTeagues pact with nature is sealed when he kills Trina in the coatroom of a school. When he flees, he relies on his animal instincts to keep him alive. Like a deer chased by a wolf, McTeague manages to elude his pursuers until they trap him in Death Valley. The hunting pack then closes in, and McTeague joins the hunters in a blood-soaked death.
Trina is as much an animal as her husband. She is initially repelled by the dentists brutish nature, but as soon as he casts his dominating spell on him, her masochistic animal nature awakens. She experiences sexual arousal from McTeagues domination, and is hooked from the first time. Her love is a deadly addiction; the drug eats away at her until she dies. She stays with McTeague through the beatings, the chewings, and the verbal abuse, always coming back for more because she likes it. Only when McTeague irrevocably mutilates her does she leave him. She is proud of her bruises, happily trading stories with Maria Macapa like teenage schoolgirls comparing their make-out sessions. Trinas sexual beast is never satisfied, always craving more and more abuse; abuse that McTeague is more than willing to give her.
Trinas other dark side involves her extramarital affair with her fortune. The sheer luck of the lottery winning changed the girl forever. The cash was never to be spent, only saved; a noble, if not intelligent, plan. However, Trinas simple animal mind can not grasp even this simple concept. She begins pilfering whatever money there is around the house, keeping it in a sack in a box. Trina hoards everything, denying both her husband and her mother necessary living money. She even sacrifices her own health, buying three-day-old meat instead of fresh cuts. When she is out on her own, the money becomes a surrogate drug; she no longer has access to the arousing abuse of McTeague, but she begins sleeping with the money covering her like a blanket. She makes love to her hoard nightly, but never contentedly. Like McTeagues abuse, she needs more and more to achieve the same effect. She sacrifices everything for her money — her health, her facial hygiene, her hair, and eventually her life. She is the stubborn dog that would not leave its masters side, and she becomes as useless as her lover in the end.
Zerkow is the perfect amalgamation of McTeague and Trina. Like the dentist he is a sadist, but prefers the implied pain of threats as opposed to the direct pain of the teeth. Zerkow chooses to hide behind his knife, reveling in the pain he causes Maria. He has been graced with Trinas addiction for money as well. A two-dimensional stereotype of a Polish Jew, Zerkow is constantly obsessed with money.
His only pleasure comes from Marias insane ravings about lost Spanish treasure. Zerkow does not have far to progress to achieve an animalistic state; he is hanging on to civilization by a thin, weakening thread. When Maria is incapable of producing his favorite intoxicant, he kills her. His broken brain slips further into his bestial nature, and he begins wandering, eventually killing himself. Zerkow would have fared much better had he married Trina; he needed her material wealth as much as she did, and the couple could have experienced menage-a-trois with the horde on a regular basis, satisfying both little animals.
Marcus Schouler is the predator of the story. His motivations come from imagined and real slights by McTeague. Unlike the dentist, however, Marcus is not some simplistic brute of a herd animal; he is a cunning, strategic hunter. Marcus is smart enough to hide behind a friendly faade, always mumbling to himself but wearing a mask of happiness. He circles the McTeagues, waiting for an opportunity to strike a blow against them. The chance finally comes, and the wound is critical; because of Marcus stoolpigeoning, McTeague looses his license and primary means of income. Marcus then withdraws, chasing the beasts until they tire. When he learns McTeague is on the run, Marcus is in close pursuit. Chasing the brute into a corner, the cunning cheetah proceeds to tear into him until McTeague is half-crazy, sick, and tired. Marcus then strikes his final, albeit imperfect, blow and kills his hated adversary. He dies in the process, but death is a small price to pay for the feeling of revenge Marcus needs.
The final stab at humans is the way the animals in the story act. The two dogs in the alley are constantly fighting each other with barks. They are confined to cages, so for a long time they never have the opportunity to come to blows. Cages can only hold a creature for a finite amount of time, however, and eventually an opportunity arises where the two animals finally meet. Instead of tearing each other to shreds, they sniff each other and seem quite satisfied with the other. The fact that the dogs can succeed where the humans failed goes a long way in explaining the other characters actions.
The four principle characters of McTeague fall short where two simple-minded canines win. According to Norris, humans are less than animals; they are slow-witted beasts barely able to come to grips with their own nature. Instead of pretending they are so high and mighty, Norris forces people to realize that their humanity causes them to fall beneath the animals. The very things humans pride themselves on are their downfall, and the animals are laughing, laughing as humans hunt and kill themselves closer and closer to extinction.